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Wild Oats: An Interview With The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 16, 2011 4:40PM

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Matthew Inman
Matthew Inman, the creator of the Web comic The Oatmeal, has cultivated a massive following based on his unique ability to visually taser just about everyone from crappy Facebook users to horrible spellers (“If you put an ‘A’ in ‘definitely,’ then you’re definitely an A-hole”).

5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth, released earlier this month, features 25 new comics as well as virtually every comic Inman has written and drawn since The Oatmeal site launched in the spring of 2009.

As Inman, 28, notes in the introduction, “This book contains gorillas, prostitution, poop jokes, small quantities of chain saws, large quantities of man nipples and one drug-addicted dinosaur. Its purpose is to entertain, inform, and offend.”

During a break from his recently launched book tour, Chicagoist mixed it up with The Oatmeal and chatted about topics ranging from brain-farming to his unusual moniker. (And no, he doesn’t eat oatmeal, but more on that later.)

Chicagoist: I really dig the fact that when you google “oatmeal,” your website is at number one, above any reference to grain cereal or the Quaker oats guy.

Matthew Inman: I think it’s awesome, and it means in Google’s eyes—which, I guess, mirrors what the general public thinks—The Oatmeal is more relevant than the actual breakfast food! You know, one person, who was actually pretty upset, e-mailed me and wanted to know where the oatmeal-for-sale was on my site! I've only had one person do that so far, though. [Laughs.]

C: On National Oatmeal Day last year, you posted the following: “Oatmeal tastes like ground-up senior citizens.” So, how did you end up with the moniker The Oatmeal for your website?

MI: When I was a teenager, I played a game called Quake online, which was a game you play against other people, and my name was always “QuakerOatmeal.” And then I shortened it, and when I started registering domain names and such, “The Oatmeal” became my nickname. The website is this compendium of crazy, viral things—there is no real, central focus. For a comic like Calvin and Hobbes, you have characters with names, so that is the obvious thing to call it. I needed something nonsensical—and The Oatmeal seemed to work. And it’s true—I do not eat oatmeal. It’s funny, it’s been all over the news about how oatmeal can be bad for you in certain circumstances, and everyone will send me links to a story about oatmeal on CNN, and at first, I’ll think ‘Wow, I’m on CNN!’ [Laughs.]

C: I read on Mashable that The Oatmeal website had nearly a quarter of a billion pageviews in 2010. For a one-man operation that is pretty impressive. Do you ever get the writer’s equivalent of stage fright—wondering if a new comic will past muster with your fans?

MI: Yeah, absolutely. I have very little feedback from anyone before posting a comic. Comedians that do stand-up often get a chance to try out their material—which jokes are good, which ones aren't working— but I don't really have that opportunity. The reaction to a comic is usually the opposite of my expectation. There will be times where I will put in three hours of work on a comic and it will fall flat on its face, while one that took me an hour or two will blow up. You just never know.

C: As The Oatmeal grew in popularity, the fees to host the site really spiked, so at one point you added a PayPal donation button with a simple message: “Like The Oatmeal? It’s a one-man operation, so buy me a cup of coffee.” At one point, you were making hundreds of dollars a day and you actually raised more money than you needed to cover the bandwidth fees.

MI: I started putting more and more material online, and it’s mostly images, so it was costing me a couple grand a month in hosting fees. I did the donation thing, and I thought I would get a couple of dollars a day, but I was getting a lot of traffic and it ended up being much more than that. I actually felt guilty, and I thought I should be giving them something in return, and that is when I decided to start selling merchandise—posters and stuff.

C: You’ve said that many of your ideas are a result of “brain-farming.” Can you talk a little about what that is?

MI: Brain-farming [laughs]—and I’m not the first person to come up with this concept—is really how I brainstorm. I will come up with an idea that I want to write about, say unicorns or ctl+z, and then, I’ll think about it, and think about it. Now, when I sit down and think about it, I usually don’t come up with anything I can use, but if I go running or while I’m in the shower or something all the pieces just click together. What made me think about articulating it in that way came from watching an episode of Mad Men. It was an episode where Don Draper is basically saying what I said. And that’s how it works.

C: I would imagine that fans are always asking how you come up with your ideas for the comics, which is understandable, but what is the one question you wish they did ask, but never do?

MI: The question I get asked the most, anywhere, is where do I get my ideas from and it’s also the hardest question to answer. The question I would like to be asked [pause]…I guess it would have to do with the kind of things I like to draw or how I draw.

C: Okay, so let’s talk about that.

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The 5 Phases of Caffeine Intake. From 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth © 2011 by Matthew Inman (Andrews McMeel Publishing).
MI: I use Adobe Fireworks to draw the comics. It kind of restricts my style, as I draw everything with a mouse. If I were to switch to a tablet, I’d probably draw better. I’m also interested in traditional cartooning, in old school pen and ink. There’s something appealing about being able to hold your drawing in your hands. It’s funny because fans will open the book to have it signed and they’ll ask me to draw a cartoon, and I always say, ‘I actually can’t draw that well.’

C: This is your first book tour—I know you are just starting the tour, but when you look out at the crowd of people attending your signings, who do you see?

MI: I definitely see a lot of tech people and a lot of geeks, and I mean that in a good way, not a mean way. I’ve seen some kids, 8-9-10 year olds and I’ll think, there’s probably some things you guys might want to skip, like the comic on “How to Fight a Crack Whore.” I’ve also had some women in their 60s show up.

C: I read that you had lunch with Farside creator Gary Larson not too long ago, and that he said fans would show up at his signings dressed as cows or pigs or chickens. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen so far on this tour?

MI: I haven’t seen anything too crazy yet. I do have a lot of people that bring me oatmeal to sign.

C: Do you ever worry about offending readers, Matt? In your comic on the Twilight books, you posed the question: “So, what about men that like Twilight?” And you wrote:

If you're male and you like Twilight, you're gay. I don't mean that in the derogatory sense, I mean it in the "you want to put your testicles against another man's testicles while gripping handfuls of chest hair" kind of way.

Which, as a gay man, I thought was hilarious—and spot-on. But there are always those readers out there that take things, especially themselves, way too seriously.

MI: After that Twilight comic came out, someone left a comment on the site saying they were offended, but I wasn’t trying to offend anyone. I just write things I like, and that I think are funny, and sometimes they coincide with other people’s beliefs, and sometimes they don’t. The comic that included the gay roller definitely brought in a lot of comments on the site, but a lot of people seem to think that one is hilarious!

C: What advice do you have, Matt, for other artists, designers, and writers that have an idea and want to take it to the next level?

MI: The internet is a good place to be an artist or a comedian or a writer. One man can do a lot of damage. There is a lot of opportunity with social news sites and social media—it’s all about who you know and how you are connected. I never went to college, and I managed to build an audience on Facebook and Twitter, and if I can do it, I think others can too.

C: Your self-portrait is kind of a potato-shaped creature with tufts of hair and a lazy eye, typically wearing a party hat. He actually looks nothing like you—you’re young and good-looking—so is this how you see yourself, Matt?

MI: Yeah, it’s more accurate of my inside. [Laughs.] With a lot of the characters that I draw, I purposely don’t include a lot of detail, and I leave them kind of blank so that people can project their own humor onto ‘em. If you add too much detail, it detracts from the humor. The character I draw that represents myself kind of looks like an Amber Alert character, but I think it makes it funnier—and more relatable.

Matthew Inman will be signing copies of his new book at Barnes and Noble, Webster Place, March 19th, 2:00 pm.